The i8 was first spied at the 2009 Frankfurt show as a turbodiesel concept, and then again at Frankfurt two years later as a plug-in hybrid sports coupe. The finished article finally rolled into BMW dealerships in 2014 with a combination drivetrain of a turbocharged 1.5 litre petrol three producing 228hp at 5,800rpm and 236lb ft of torque at 3,700rpm supplemented by an eDrive synchronous electric motor providing 129hp and 184lb ft of torque to the front wheels from zero rpm. In a 1,500kg car with a drag coefficient of 0.26, the hybrid powertrain gave it a 4.4sec 0-62mph time and an official fuel consumption of 157mpg.
That last number was theoretical, of course, but real-world mpg results in the high-30s or better weren’t. Nor was the fact that the i8 was a fabulously styled mid-engined, rear-wheel drive (with electrically-driven fronts), Porsche 911-rivalling coupe heading up an exciting new range of futuristic, light and sporty BMWs. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Bring on the wavy lines as we pop back in time to the beginning. The i8 was shaped by Benoit Jacob, Design Director at BMW ‘i’ from 2010 and surely right up there in the league table of unsung designers. Benoit was a big fan of the great Italian concept cars that used to come out on what seemed like a weekly basis in the early 1970s, properly bonkers stuff like Pininfarina’s Ferrari Modulo and Giugiaro’s gorgeous Maserati Boomerang. A key role at BMW’s FIZ research and innovation centre at the beginning of what looked like a fascinating new era in sustainable performance must have seemed like a dream ticket to Benoit at the time.
Clearly though there was a change in thinking about the whole i concept at BMW because Jacob’s position as head of i design softened through the 2010s to ‘advanced design’ and then to design generally. He eventually left BMW in 2016 to work in Munich for Chinese startup Byton, whose electric M-Byte SUV with full-width dash screen is due out next year.
This Benoit Jacob stuff may seem like a bit of a diversion, and it’s always dangerous to draw any conclusions about the future of design at BMW, but the ‘i’ picture has certainly changed quite a bit since 2014. As noted, the i8 was trumpeted in as the flagship for a whole new electrified vehicle range, but i8 production has since stopped, arguably two years ahead of time if you count 2018’s mild power hike to 369hp as a midlife refresh. The big changes that the i8 seemed to be ushering in are now taking a back seat to commercial safety in the conventional shapes of upcoming i cars like the iX3, i4 and iNext. The only other car in the original ‘i’ range, the 2013 i3 electric hatchback (another Benoit Jacob work) now stands alone, tagged onto the end of the BMW product strip next to the i8 as a testament to what might have been, given the i3’s continuing success.
That 2018 upgrade apart, the i8 received little developmental attention from its parent. It used the same 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine plus electric motor drivetrain throughout its run and now seems to be going through a process of reinvention as a pioneering figurehead for plug-in hybrid BMW models, almost as if it was never a serious model in its own right. It was indeed a pioneer in carbon construction processes (many of which have since integrated into other ‘regular’ BMW models) and in the wider area of low-energy, high-performance motoring, but if it’s only going to be remembered for its contribution to other BMWs, that would be a sad downgrading of its significance.
What went wrong? A high asking price combined with that absence of spec-based bragging rights made the i8 a challenging purchase for traditionally-minded sports car owners. Even now, in our supposedly more enlightened times, having to justify a supercar whose main form of propulsion is a 1.5 litre Mini Cooper engine is still too much of a stretch for the average buyer, even if that motor is basically a BMW 3.0 six cut in half.
i8 buyers weren’t average. They were committed early adopters who weren’t obsessed with cubic inches and who would have relished explaining the wisdom of the i8 to those who were. Those who did take the plunge were rewarded with a mid-engined 2+2 that was as brilliant to drive as it was to look at. Sure, it wasn't massively practical, but it was the clearest expression yet of BMW’s ‘efficient dynamics’ philosophy.
20,000 i8s were built over a six-year lifecycle, which is actually a good number compared to the numbers of previous high-end BMWs that were sold. The M1, which was the last production mid-engined BMW prior to the i8, found 399 customers, and the later Z8 was limited to 5,000, but all these numbers are tiny for a company of BMW’s size. Today used examples starting from under £40,000 represent an interesting alternative to what you can pick up from BMW’s new car range in 2021 for the same money, namely a 320i M Sport saloon with a couple of cheap extras fitted.